A Multi-dimensional Atticus?

WatchmanWhen I first heard that Atticus Finch was a racist in Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, I thought, “What? No way will I read the book then. I don’t care how anticipated its release.”

I likened finding out this man I had on a pedestal had somehow turned racist to learning my own father is racist. It can’t be. There’s no way could a man of such honor and courage could turn racist in his later years.

Add to that the review I heard by Charles Shields on CNN yesterday:

“The book has no literary merit.”
~~Charles Shields
Author of Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee

So came my second “What?” How could a book by Pulitzer Prize winner, Harper Lee, have no literary merit? In 1999, respondents to a LIBRARY JOURNAL poll judged Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird the “best novel of the century.” How is it possible its sequel (actually written first) have no literary merit?

So, though I hate the thought of one of my favorite characters of all time making a suicidal leap off his pedestal, how can I possibly not read Go Set a Watchman? As an author, I want to know two things:

  1. How does an author manage to take Atticus  from a character so well-respected he was voted “Greatest Hero in American Film” by the American Film Institute in 2003, to being a racist only 20 years later in Go Set a Watchman? Maybe it’s that the editor for To Kill a Mockingbird, Tay Hohoffsignificantly changed Atticus from what Ms. Lee intended during the two and a half year re-write. No well-developed character is either all good or all bad, but this seems an extreme leap and in my humble opinion, requires a lot of backstory on what might cause such a chasm in values. I want to know that backstory.
  2. How is it possible To Kill a Mockingbird won a Pulitzer Prize and reviewers say Go Set a Watchman has “no literary merit.” Again, perhaps the answer lies in Tay Hohoff’s skill as an editor. See the following links for other reviews:

New York Times: “…Go Set a Watchman sporadically generates the literary force that has buoyed To Kill a Mockingbird for over half a century…”

NPR: “Harper Lee’s Watchman is a Mess that Makes Us Reconsider a Masterpiece.”

Amazon is filled with both positive and negative reviews, but one comment may answer my questions above:

The short version of this review is: if nothing else, Go Set A Watchman, especially when compared to the brilliance of To Kill A Mockingbird, is a testament to the power of a good editor.~~RosieDee753

If it’s true that much of Atticus Finch was molded by Harper Lee’s editor, perhaps my resolution to my disappointment about Atticus Finch’s racism will be to consider him as two separate characters, written by two separate authors. I will choose to remember him as he was portrayed in To Kill a Mockingbird.

But if this character change is all it’s been written up to be, if Go Set a Watchman’s Atticus has truly become a racist, I have to ask myself the same thing Randall Kennedy of the New York Times asked:

Would it have been better for this earlier novel to have remained unpublished?

Though I’m going to try to keep an open mind as I read the book, I have two reasons I think the answer may be “yes:”

  1. With all the race issues we continue to deal with today, the last thing we needed was for one of our heroes to be taken away.
  2. It’s sad to think the much-anticipated Go Set a Watchman will for many, tarnish the glow of a novel and character that touched millions of lives over the last half century.\

Will you read Go Set a Watchman? What are your thoughts?

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2 Responses to A Multi-dimensional Atticus?

  1. Ed Quixote says:

    You beat me to the gun, Jan. I was about to comment on this very thing. People are being misled about Go Set a Watchman. It is NOT a sequel. Yes, the characters are all older than they were in To Kill a Mockingbird, but Watchman is an early version–think of it as a draft–of Mockingbird, before Harper Lee’s editor, Tay Hohoff at Lippincott, recast Watchman into Mockingbird.

    It’s sad because naive readers are going to think Watchman, by being published later, is Lee’s final comment on the story. On the other hand, it’s instructive for people–especially writers–to see what a (brilliant?) editor can do with a flawed story from a gifted writer. To bad Ms Hohoff is no longer around to give us the details. But there must have been extensive correspondence exchanged between Ms Lee and Ms Hohoff. It would be interesting to see and to follow the evolution of the work.

  2. Gayle says:

    I, too, have been skeptical about this book ever since I heard about it. 1) I cannot fathom in this day and age that someone ‘discovered’ this book after all these years. Could it be that Harper Lee had NO intention of exposing it? If that, then why should WE? 2) Just because someone SAYS it was written by Lee….what if it wasn’t and this is a huge hoax being foisted on all of us by persons seeking to cash in on that nam, simply because they have the credentials to make it possible? 3) Supposedly the book was originally rejected as being rubbish . If that, then why should WE bring it into the open? Are we that desperate for another book? Editor or no editor….The ensuing battle and bad/good reviews still have me stymied. Yes, I’ll probably look at it. Read it? Depends on the first chapter. Doesn’t it always?

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